Colombo, Human Rights, Human Security, IDPs and Refugees, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Remember the Riots

Some Reflections arising from Ethnic Riots

by Somapala Gunadheera

Off and on, I write short stories, never anecdotes. But now I have to oblige Sanjana. He wants stories about our ethnic riots, the one that raged before he was born and the other when he was at school. Therapists say that anecdotes have a healing effect on ethnic wounds.

My experience about the 1983 riot was brief. Then I was the Chairman of the Ceylon Steel Corporation at Athurugiriya. Towards mid-day, I heard that Tigers had invaded Colombo and people were running away helter-skelter. The Aturugiriya Police had blocked the road opposite their station and were in battle array.

Later it transpired that the beginning of the turmoil was the sighting of a Tamil victim of the riot hiding on the roof of a building in the Pettah, reminiscent of the fable in which the entire animal kingdom took to its heels as the story spread that the world was crashing, as reported by a chick on whose back a large leaf had fallen.

Before the actual fact was known however, there was much excitement. The workers went home early and the staff bus was ready to take the officers away. But there was a snag. One of the officers was Tamil and it was considered risky to have him in the bus, as by now Sinhala chauvinism had taken control of the situation and there were mob checks at every junction.

I offered to take the Tamil officer in my vehicle hoping to exploit the status of my car in the area. For solidarity’s sake a few others got in with the man under risk. On the way, we were blocked by a mob armed with clubs and knives at the Hokandara junction. I opened my window. The leader of the mob came up. “Ah, Sir, Chairman!” he said with a bow, “you are all Sinhalese, no sir?”

That was a situation where truth was homicidal. I smiled my sweetest in reply. Besides how could I answer that question with scientific precision, without the help of the best bio-analyst in the world, in the background of our long and checkered history?

My experience in the 1958 riots was far more dangerous. I had just returned from Jaffna after serving my cadetship. I could afford only a part of a house rented by a Tamil. One day there was mayhem up the lane with a mob attacking the Tamils, towards dusk. My landlord who was a leading Communist had gone to his headquarters, leaving his young wife and their son and daughter who were about two to three years.

There was not much time to act before the mob reached our house. I took the son in my hands and the mother took the daughter. Together we got out of the backdoor, crept through a barb wire fence and ran across a coconut property as fast as we could until we came to a cadjan hut. There was an old couple there. They were very sympathetic to the helpless trio in distress and assured me that nothing could happen to them in that out of the way place.

Satisfied with their assurance, I left my charges there and returned home to look to my old parents and young sister. They were alright. The mob had entered the house and the results of their ‘linguistic test’ being negative, they had passed on. Past nine in the night, I brought back my landlord’s wife and children, the man still apparently engrossed in conference with the dynamics of ethnic conflict.

All was quiet now and we retired to bed. I slept in the front room and my parents and sister in the room behind. Around midnight, I was suddenly put up by a sound of crashing glass. It did not take long for me to realize that my front window was being attacked with stones. Some stones were falling inside the room. Before I could get up my mother was physically upon me covering her only son with her body. I struggled out of bed and took my mother to the inner room.

Soon there was the roar of an approaching motorcycle. The stoning ceased suddenly. The cycle stopped in front of our house. I came out to see it was a police officer, a cousin of my landlady. There was a large pistol in his holster. As the officer entered the house, I saw our front door neighbor closing his partly opened window and it dawned on me the attack was his punishment to me for helping the ‘bloody Tamils’. His cowardice was now taking the better of his chauvinism.

Twenty-five years later, the protagonists of this drama keep coming back to my mind now. My Communist landlord died long ago. His bones might be turning in his grave to find that his successors are even now grappling with ethnic rivalry, even around the epicenter of his dogma. The old couple that gave shelter to my charges that night are very likely to be among the departed. The loving kindness they showered on their wards that night was more than enough to open the gates of heaven to them.

My mother is dead now and the mother of the Tamil children is supposed to be living abroad. The two mothers showed that a basic instinct like maternal sacrifice had no ethnic barriers. The two children must be well away in their new salubrious abode. Their childhood memory may be validating what communalists keep preaching to them about the Sinhala desperados. Perhaps they were too young then to realize that their survival had something to do with a different kind of ‘desperado’. As part of the Tamil Diaspora, they may be assuaging with alms, their guilty conscience about leaving behind, their less fortunate, (more patriotic?) blood cousins.

My front door assailant is dead. As a believer in rebirth, I do not rule out the possibility of his being reborn a Tamil to pay penance for what he did to the Tamils in his previous birth. It is even possible that he is among the hundred suicide bombers that are supposed to be in Colombo now, according to our authorities whose statistics are as efficient as their management of the ethnic conflict is deficient.

[Editors note: The author’s first submission to Groundviews, Jaffna: Retrospect and Prospect, on his experiences as a civil servant in Jaffna, has been read over a 1,000 times to date and quoted widely on the web. This article was sent in response to an email of mine calling for submissions remembering the anti-Tamil riots of ’58 and ’83.]


For more articles on July 1983, please click here.

  • punitham

    ”…. their guilty conscience about leaving behind, their less fortunate, (more patriotic?) blood cousins …..”

    – wrenching the heart and choking the throat and misting the eyes. Can’t we put the clock back?

    • punitham

      can’t help coming back to pay homage to a good fellow citizen.

  • Anti Tamil violence of 1958 and 1983 should have served as a history lesson, teaching the Sinhala citizens of the evil of unleashing venomous violence against Tamils.

    However, to the Tamils, 1958 and 1983 incidents underlined the utmost importance of a Tamil homeland, with the ability to protect themselves, into which the Tamils could run and seek shelter whenever the ” Sinhala snake” started to pour out venom.

    From the year 1958, the political parties in the South had an obligation to educate their children, the future leaders of their country, to respect the legitimate right of Tamils in the North East (NE) to rule themselves, to live together, build up the island and dvelop its economy jointly to benefit all the citizens.

    The policos were not concerned at all of citizen life imbued with tranquility, stability and peace. Their aim was to get into power and become “monarchs” and treat citizens like subjects.

    Though governments have changed since 1958, there was no change in lack of determination to grant the legitimate rights of Tamils in the NE. Instead, a competitive “anti Tamil software” not to grant Tamil rights grew rapidly within UNP and SLFP; the major political parties in the south, inspite of decades of losing precious lives and properties. The island has turned out to be a “paradise in decay”.

    The hallmark of a good democracy is to include all the people. But the people of NE were excluded from governance by their inability to decide on their own matters at grass root level.

    It would be correct to say that political leadership in the South became extinct in 1956. Since then, the South had political Managers and not Political Leaders. No party would have been elected to power if their stance on anti Tamilism was not better than the opposing party. No real leadership was coming up from any of them to carve out a peaceful future.

    A writer once said ” Leaders inspire people and believe in the future while managers control people to behave. This definition exactly fits the political mangers in the island from 1956, whom we erroneously call as “Political Leaders”. Mangers fear the future. They dread the possibilities and fear the success of others.

    Political Sub managers play “Politics of belly”, where they regard themselves as accountable to the appointing authority and disregard the good of all the citizens. Presently, President Rajapakse and his cabinet sub managers are playing exactly this role.

    Therefore, what is needed now in Sri Lanka is real leadership from capable leaders who would boldly stand up distinctly to entail a more open culture towards the legitimate rights of people in the NE and take the island and all the citizens to a “digital level”: inspiring people to a future for all.

  • Ekcol

    I have read during the last three or four years personal accounts of many acts of kindness and bravery by Sinhala person and families towards the Tamils in distress in various parts of the country during the 1956, 1958, 1977 and 1983. I wish they can be collected and published into a book – a book of hope. Unfortunately, after 1983, the retaliation against Tamil civilians were left to the army, air force, navy, police and their special forces. Those who were murdered, raped and disappeared in Jaffna during 1997 to date and the murders that tookplace in Trinco and the East since July 2006 did not have Sinhala good samaritans to help. My heart tells me the cycle of violence will end. But my mind tells me otherwise.

  • peace

    Why cannot human beings realize that we are on this Earth for such a short time. Why do we have to fight and kill for a land space that we are going to leave anyway. What is the use of bloodshed anywhere on earth for the simple reason of owndership. How can earth be owned?

    Australian Aboriginal people didn’t have a word in their language to discribe land owndership. Why? Because the land (Earth) cannot be owned. It is like our mother. We are to respect it and look after it where ever we are in the world.

    Every human being is born with blood, veins, bones, etc. No, difference! We live on this Earth which ever corner we are in, for a very short period of time. IF we are lucky we can may be make a hundred. Even this is rare… Then what are we fighting for? No one takes the land, nor possessions, nor even their ancestral names on their way when they leave this life. Think beyond the greed and live the short time we are on Earth to the best and happiest possible.

    May peace and happiness be with you all!

  • Lets also not forget to remember the 89-90 riots. Just because it did not involve Tamils we cannot push it aside, after all the loss of over 30 000 youth is far greater than the riots that get the media attention. This is real injustice!

    The similar can be applied to the 90 000 expulsion for the fescilitation of a nazi state, that even more recently, 1990.

    Ofcourse the many historical accounts are too numerous to mention. Lets also hope that the Sinhalese could also be able to live and persue legitimate aspirations in the North (and east) like many of us (certainly not all) Tamils enjoy outside Vanni.

  • Somapala Gunadheera

    A Postscript to my “Some Reflections arising from Ethnic Riots”

    The Thomian teacher who taught us English in our village school, left a lasting impression on my use of language. He impressed upon me that the best writing was that which left the best unwritten. In other words he stressed the beauty of understatement. I abided by his advice when I wrote the original article.

    In retrospect, I have come to realize that finesse of language is lost on a society that is getting progressively brutalized. What works now is the Sinhala adage that my father taught me when I was so high. It goes, “If a man cannot take your hint, drive it into him with a rice-pounder”.

    So I decided to give naked expression to what I was trying to say through my real anecdotes of our ethnic riots. They may be summed up as follows:

    1. In the kaleidoscope of humanity there can be no scientifically pure ethnic identity. In the absence of identity, there is no base for rivalry.
    2. Theory and doctrine have so far failed to find an effective cure for ethnic strife even in advanced societies.
    3. What ultimately works is the milk of human kindness that is basic to every religion and found in greater measure among the lesser sophisticated.
    4. Before you harm any one, remember that that person is the issue of another mother like yours. How would your mother have reacted, if the same harm befell on you?
    5. Quite apart from the theory of Karma, all religions teach that every action has its equal and opposite reaction. Remember that the pain you inflict on another under the delusion of ethnicity, will visit you in equal measure some day.
    6. According to the doctrine of rebirth, you may be in the shoes of your ethnic rival in your next birth. In that case all the disabilities you impose on your rival in this birth, will be suffered by you yourself in your next birth.
    7. Violence is not the preserve of any one race. The carry-over of your violence to your next birth, may result in the destruction of the very persons who were near and dear to you in this birth.
    8. Never misuse an official influence personally, to summarily avenge even a wrong done to you.
    9. We should be altruistic enough to stand back and fight for our people, before seeking refuge for ourselves.
    10. Do not demonize a whole class of people for the fault of a few of their bad eggs.

    I wish our teaching fraternity to which I once belonged, would use the anecdotes of the ethnic riots, put together by Sanjana, to inculcate these truths and values, in the flowering tender minds under their charge. Let us ensure that ‘communalism’ would be a dirty word for our progeny.

  • SS

    Dear Mr. Somapala

    Please accept my apologies for reaching you on this post.

    I happened to read your article which has been reproduced on the Sri Lankan army web site at

    Unfortunately, your optimism regarding the “non desecration” of Prabhakaran’s has come a little too early.

    This video with the stripped body of Prabhakaran was initially uploaded to one of the Sri Lankan government websites. It was shortly removed, then replaced with the current ones which present the dignified winner image of the soldiers examing the dead body in its battle fatigues.

    We live in a world where things are not what they seem – even well meaning words can and are misused for disinformation. I took the time to write to you to simply point out that the misinformation and guile in our world runs much deeper than we can comprehend.

    I pray for peace in your beautiful island.

    Kind Regards